TWIM Reviews: War Dogs

WAR DOGS (Warner Bros.)

Dir. Todd Phillips, Script. Stephen Chin, Todd Phillips, Jason Smilovic

Cast: Jonah Hill, Miles Teller

Plot: Two college dropouts stumble into becoming international arms dealers.

My realization that I had War Dogs all wrong in my head came swiftly and as blatantly as Jordan Belfort in The Wolf Of Wall Street. With this project being Todd Phillips’s first since creating, popularizing and subsequently butchering the Hangover trilogy, and the premise being a kind of buddy comedy nirvana, I had high hopes that War Dogs would be a solid comedy. The opening 30 seconds proved otherwise – we have a flash forward to some violence, a quick pause and a fourth-wall breaking voiceover from our main character, who introduces his slightly seedy profession and is supported by some old-school rock sound. I’m sure that the question of when Todd Phillips broke down so completely that he began to identify as Martin Scorsese will be answered eventually, but until then we filmgoers must simply accept War Dogs as a kind of Aldi-brand Goodfellas, or even a Co-Op Carlito’s Way, as Brian De Palma doesn’t escape this ‘homage’-fest either. But while you can tangibly trace exactly where War Dogs has come from, its far more difficult to make out what this movie wants to say.

WAR DOGS

She’s having a baby, he’s selling weapons…’You deliver the arms and I’ll deliver the arms’

 

War Dogs is, surprisingly, about war. But war is a multi-faceted beast, and to his credit (and to the film’s detriment) Phillips attempts to get that across. Moments after the film’s opening, refitted from Goodfellas like an IKEA kitchen, straight man Miles Teller pines that ‘War is an economy’, and of course where the weapons come from is a subject covered extensively, but there are light touches on public opinion on the Iraq War as well. There’s also hints at those who have left their folks at home to fight for their flag, and questions over the practices of those chosen to serve and lead their flag. But for all those anti-war sentiments, its difficult to think of them when your biggest action sequence involves Jonah Hill blasting through the Iraqi desert screaming ‘God Bless Dick Cheney’s America!’ after their rebel pursuants were blown to smithereens by helicopters. We see the specific cost of outfitting a single American soldier, but we never see that soldier, nor any of them – this is a movie about people who make hideous profit propagating a war they dislike, and not once is the moral cost of that really shown.

War Dogs 2

Jonah Hill here looking like a slightly larger cosplayer of Bono’s ‘The Fly’ outfit

 

In effect, War Dogs could have taken the easier road and gone direct down the buddy comedy approach. Hill and Teller bounce off each other on screen, they both play really well together, and watching them somehow fumble their way into big time arms dealing is admittedly entertaining. Its good that Phillips tried to make a more challenging film, complete with all the stylistic tropes we’ve come to expect from a Scorsese crime film (and even poaching a prime Jonah Hill) and the gangster rise/fall arc we’ve seen in so many classics. But in a sense, I think Phillips didn’t go far enough down that route: for all of Teller’s fourth-wall breaking, for all the mentions of Bush, Cheney and general governmental laissez-faire when it came to war, War Dogs still feels like a comedy. Hill and Teller’s protagonists are not that far detached from those we saw in the Hangover trilogy – the bongs, clubs and overall debauchery we saw there is here also. War Dogs is definitely trying to go all out gangster film (the offices of Hill and Teller’s arms company has a colossal Scarface mural), but ends up playing like a Scorsese movie stuck in the body of The 40 Year Old Virgin (other Judd Apatow comedies are available).

War Dogs 3

Scorsese, without the sudden bullet to the head

 

However, and it has to be said, War Dogs is bloody fun to watch. It’s one of those films where you can go in to it, appreciating that it’s a bit rough around the edges, a little messy, but just go with it and be richly rewarded. For Phillips, what his movie lacks in dramatic commitment is more than made up for in sheer entertainment value. And even though I’ve said many times that the director is obviously taken and betrothed to Scorsese’s style, its not a bad crack of the whip by any means, and on top of that there’s some really decent cinematography too. While the tone is inconsistent at times, there are some brief moments when the comedy and the seriousness perfectly coalesce – and that’s just the Iraq scenes. They are excellent scenes. When Hill and Teller are told they have to drive a lorry full of confiscated Italian handguns through Iraq, the inane bravado of Hill as he talks specifics about how this would happen is absolutely infectious. It’s like watching you and your best mate, but if you were even more crazy. Hill and Teller’s depictions here are spot on, posing with middle fingers in the air after somehow making it to the American military base, acting like action heroes as they are informed they ran their guns through the ‘Triangle of Death’. Teller is a compelling straight man who is practically seduced into the arms trade by Hill, who overshadows his co-star by literally robbing every scene from his back pocket. Take these words as said: this is Jonah Hill’s most memorable performance to date, and he has two Oscar nominations under his belt.

War Dogs 1

‘How many onions did you put in the sauce?’ ‘Three small onions’ ‘That’s too much’

 

Stephen Chin’s script is, although muddled, packed with solid dialogue, and it allows for great interplay between Hill and Teller, whose characters are also genuinely interesting to watch, and some of the most memorable I’ve seen in some time. As well as those two on the top of their game, we’re also treated to Bradley Cooper as a notorious arms dealer who supports Hill and Teller to make himself even more profit. Cooper’s definitely done more intensive work, but for what its worth the fact Cooper’s just here is pleasant. Unfortunately, a subplot involving Teller’s girlfriend is effectively window dressing, and is a distraction instead of being a moral compass for the film. Ana de Armas plays her well enough, but she has very little to do here. But then again, neither do you: all you have to do is turn up at the cinema, take your seat, accept that you’re going to be hanging out with Jonah Hill and Miles Teller as they run weapons across borders and smoke enough weed to run across dimensions. While this movie is still a bit cheap-and-cheerful when compared to the classic movies its obviously trying to capture the spirit of, War Dogs has enough violence, nightclubs and profit to keep you entertained. By the time it ends, you’ll have wanted to be an international arms dealer for as long as you can remember.

RATING: 3/4

BEST WATCHED: This’ll work anywhere – definitely give it a watch either in cinemas or when it hits the home video market.
WHAT NEXT?

Jonah Hill is one of many comedic talents lending their voices to one of the most anticipated comedies I can think of in recent times, the gloriously profane Pixar send-up Sausage Party. Hill features amongst…oh I can’t be bothered to name them all – here’s the list, I’m sure you’ll find quite a lot of people you like in there. After that, Hill returns to Jump Street as the franchise has a crossover film with Men In Black, called MIB 23. Yeah, I’m puzzled too. The ever-busy Miles Teller on the other hand will be annoyed that, with him still contracted on the Divergent franchise (which he is known to hate passionately), and with Allegiant being a definitive flop, Teller will be forced onto filming the second part of the final film as a TV movie.

James Stephenson

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